China – Week Four

>What a whirlwind week!! I’m starting to really wish that I would have broken this into two parts and posted part one before the weekend, because the weekend was so incredible that I’m almost having a hard time remembering what went on earlier in the week! I know that we went to a new Szechwan restaurant one night. I’m almost positive that we also went to the Japanese restaurant in the hotel twice. We really love that place. They use a special seasoning on the Fried Rice that is just amazing and Jesse simply can NOT get enough sashimi. I also went for a very long run (I’m such a liar, it was a walk-walk-run at best) around the lake one day. And we went to Times Square one evening to take pictures of the lights. While we were there we ate at Papa Johns. Back in the States I never really go to Papa Johns (there are just other pizza places I like better) so I can’t really say if it tasted “normal” or not. All I know is that the bread and cheese really hit the spot. All in all it was a good week. But what I REALLY want to talk about is our weekend (and bare with me here, it’s going to get wordy, feel free to just skim through the pictures and come back later this week for Homemade Oreos!!).


What was so great about our weekend? In one word, Beijing. In many words, Tiananmen Square, Summer Palace, the 2008 Olympic park, the Great Wall of China, and the Forbidden City. I don’t think I need to tell you how exhausted I was by the end of the weekend, my calves have not been this sore since I was dancing.

Beijing is just over 1,000 km from Suzhou so this was no trip for a taxi or a car. Lucky for us, in June a new high-speed train opened that connects Shanghai and Beijing, so instead of an expensive 2 hour plane ride or 14 hour car ride, we (Jesse, Mandy, and I) hopped on a high-speed train that got us there in just under 5 hours. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. When they let us up on the platform it took just a minute or two for the train to arrive. We boarded and before we were even seated the train was off. I guess I expected it to be more like an airplane where they wait for everyone to be seated, give a little speech, and tell you before you take off. Nope, I was wrong. The train doesn’t usually spend more than 2 or 3 minutes at each station. Just enough time to let people off and let new people on. The trains speed scrolls along a screen at the front of each cabin and the fastest speed I saw was 320 km/h, but it certainly didn’t feel like we were going that fast.


Once we arrived in Beijing we met Mandy’s sister. We walked down to where you are supposed to meet taxis and the line was so long. Mandy and her sister found a man that operates a “black taxi” service and negotiated with him to drive us to the hotel. We went to bed as soon as we arrived because we had a VERY early wake up call planned – 4:15 am, so we could catch the raising of the flag at Tiananmen Square. We did manage to wake up early enough and get to the square. Along with just a couple thousand other tourist. With a 4:50 flag raising time I figured it would be a pretty personal experience, but no, every single morning (at the butt crack of dawn) the square is flooded with people to watch. It was worth it, though. It’s also fun to watch the sky brighten up in the pictures. It is timed perfectly so the flag reaches the top right at sunrise. After that we went back to the hotel for a short nap, shower and breakfast and by 8:30 we were off again.


We spent the rest of the day visiting the National Museum of China, having a traditional Beijing roast duck for lunch (which I came to lovingly refer to as a Chinese taco and is a new favorite of mine!), seeing Summer Palace, and finally we took a taxi to the Olympic park. The Olympics were in 2008, so you would think that maybe some of the novelty of the park would have worn off. Again, nope. 3 years later and the place was packed. That’s OK though, we wanted to see the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube and we did. We also were asked by a several people to have our photo taken with them. Jesse had told me before that sometimes people would stop him for pictures but it hadn’t happened to me in Suzhou. Then in one weekend we were stopped probably 6-7 times. Our theory is that Suzhou is a business area, there are lots of foreigners here on business, so while I may feel like a one woman parade, it’s not that exciting to see an American in Suzhou. But Beijing is the kind of place that gets a lot of Chinese tourism. I think that people save for years and come from smaller villages where they probably don’t ever see visitors. So when they visit Beijing on holiday and see a handsome American boy and a blonde girl, it’s more exciting. Just our theory.


Sunday was the big day. We hired a car for the day to drive us to the Great Wall and then drive us back later. It was 600 RMB (~ 90 USD) which may seem a little steep, but when you consider that he drove an hour to take us, waited there for 3 hours while we climbed the wall, drove us to his recommended place for a Beijing local lunch, then drove us back to hotel, AND he spoke pretty fluent English, I think it was an incredible deal. The wall was everything I thought it would be and more. To the point that I can’t even think of the right words to describe, so I won’t even try. Here are some pictures.


After the wall we headed back out to a popular bar street for dinner. I was beyond skeptical as we passed through a dirty alley, went in a dark back entrance, walked up the stairs with boxes piled every where, and through the kitchen to a tiny little restaurant. But holy crap. Best noodles I’ve ever had in my whole life. I will probably dream about these noodles for the rest of my life and I may need to take another trip to Beijing at some point, just to eat those noodles. It was a good night.

To say that we were exhausted by Monday morning is a huge understatement. When the alarm went off I think I could have cried. But we had one more place to visit, the Forbidden City (named as such because entry and exit was forbidden without direct consent from the Emperor). It was pretty awesome too. There is just something about being a place that is that old and has that much history that makes you really think. Forbidden City was originally built in the 1400’s and lasted through the Ming and Qing dynasties and was the home for 24 emperors. Pretty cool if you ask me. Of course much of it has been repainted, renovated, and rebuilt, but the skeleton is still the same.

To wrap it up we jumped back on the high-speed train and were back in Suzhou by 7:30. Having gone a whole weekend with out sashimi from the Japanese restaurant we went there for dinner and I was zonked out by 10:30.

Now we have just 4 more days until we are back HOME! I have loved this entire trip but my two little babies are calling my name as well as my KITCHEN! I can’t wait to get back and start cooking and make this a real food blog again. I may or may not post one more short recap of our last few days here, but I want to say thank you again to anyone and everyone that has read these lengthy posts of mine.

Chinese Dumplings

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So far, I would have to say that the highlight of my trip to China has been cooking alongside Mandy and learning how to make Chinese dumplings. I did my best to take notes, ask questions and keep a careful eye on all of the steps. I even consulted with Mandy via gmail chat as I wrote out this recipe to be sure that I had it right. That being said, Mandy has told me several times that the problem with making real Chinese food is that recipes and exact amounts are rarely used. Most people that she knows that cook do it by taste, smell, and texture. Or, to them a cup is the green cup that their grandmother had on the counter. So I encourage you to use your best judgment as you go forward with this recipe. If you’re mixing and it feels like there should be more soy sauce, corn starch, or even green onions for that matter, go with your gut. For example, after finely chopping the garlic and throwing it in the bowl she said, “I don’t know, what do you think, more garlic?” Of course I responded with, “Heck yeah more garlic.” Also keep in mind that the filling should stick to itself pretty well, but not the sides of the bowl.

A huge thank you to Mandy for opening up her kitchen to me and doing her best to teach me!


We started with shopping for fresh ingredients

Pork, Cabbage, and Mushroom Filling for Chinese Dumplings
As taught to me by our friend, Mandy

Ingredients
1 1/2 lbs ground pork
3/4 cup Chinese cabbage, finely chopped
3/4 cup mushrooms, finely chopped
1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 green onions, including whites, finely chopped
1 Tbsp fresh minced ginger
1 egg
1 tsp chicken bouillon (or one cube, crushed)
2 tsp corn starch
2 tsp sesame oil
2 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp salt

~50 dumpling wraps*
1/2 cup water (for sealing the dumplings)

Corn oil and water for cooking

*Available in most well stocked grocery stores in the refrigerated section (or near produce) or can be found at Asian specialty stores. It might not hurt to call ahead and ask! I will add an updated link to this recipe when I get home and test out making my own dough!


Some of the ingredients


Chop Chop!

Directions
Place all of the first group of ingredients in a large bowl. At first, use two clean hands to lightly mix together and evenly distribute various ingredients. When the ingredients appear to be evenly distributed hold the bowl with one hand and use the other to fold the ingredients from the back side of the bowl to the front. Turn the bowl a quarter turn and fold again. Repeat until the filling is sticking together after each turn. This process keeps the filling from being overworked and getting tough. If for some reason it just doesn’t seem to be coming together you can try adding a little bit more cornstarch and a tablespoon of beaten egg.


Folding ingredients together

To fill the dumplings, hold the dumpling wrapper in one hand and place about 2 tbsp of filling in the middle. Wet one finger and run around the edge of the wrapper. Fold the wrapper (kind of like a taco) and pinch in the middle. The sides will still be open at this point. Now, each open end is going to get 3 pinches. Each pinch will work it’s way to the middle. You want the final dumpling to be able to stand on it’s own.


Filling


The theme of the evening was pinch, pinch, pinch

Heat one tablespoon of oil in a large skillet (with a lid) over medium heat. Add a group of dumplings to the pan and cook in oil for two minutes. After two minutes, add 1/2 cup of water (or enough to come 1/3 of the way up the dumplings), cover the skillet with a lid (careful there will be some splatter!) and cook for 6-8 minutes or until all of the water has been absorbed. Repeat with remaining dumplings.

For dipping, Mandy threw together some soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, garlic, and green onion. I didn’t get the exact measurements or a picture, though.


I made beef and mushrooms with gravy and mashed potatoes,
Jesse put it all in one bowl and enjoyed 🙂

China – Week Three

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As strange as it may sound, life in China is actually starting to settle into a norm. I think what I mean by that is it feels a little less like vacation to me and little more just like living life. This week I did a lot of working and playing in the Admiral lounge, Jesse came “home” around the same time every evening, we went to dinner at several restaurants we have already been too… Are you seeing a pattern here?

But, that doesn’t mean that we didn’t do a lot of fun things. For that reason I’m not really going to do a play by play of each day this week, instead I’m going to highlight some of the fun things and other thoughts I have on China.

For the 4th of July we were on a mission for American food. We found a Friday’s and insisted that Mandy and Michelle go with us. Back in the States Friday’s is not my favorite restaurant, but I can not begin to tell you how much I appreciated the chicken strips – with no bones and honey mustard for dipping! It was a nice meal and it was fun being able to give M&M a little taste of America. Especially on the 4th!

Monday (or was it Tuesday?) I went for a a long walk during the day. But instead of going my typical route, over by Rainbow Walk, I went the other direction and crossed the bridge over the lake. It was overcast that day but still boiling hot. It felt like it was 247,356 degrees outside. Really it was about 95 with 80% humidity. I’ve got to tell you, I’m amazed at at how well the locals here tolerate the heat. I was wearing shorts and a tank top and I was seconds away from a heat stroke. People were passing me on scooters wearing pants, skirts with tights, long sleeve shirts, hats and jackets (turned the wrong way, I guess to protect them from bugs while riding the scooter). Really amazing.

We also went for Korean BBQ this week. The meal started with a cold pumpkin soup that was light and refreshing. We ordered an assortment of vegetables and meats to grill (and wrap) and there were also a lot of “freebies” that came with the meal. Including cucumber, an egg dish (reminded me of a cold omelet), crab, potatoes and kimchi. Wasn’t my favorite meal here but wasn’t my least favorite either. I would do it again, and just go really heavy on the vegetables!


Thursday evening there was a party to celebrate the progress of the plant and the wrapping up of the first phase. This evening will also be known as the night the beer never stopped. Everyone was in full celebration mode and toasts were non-stop. Furthermore, no toast can be done with a glass that isn’t full. I think the pictures will say more than words.


Saturday morning we woke up early to head to an electronics store with Bohan. Jesse needed to pick up a webcam for work and Bohan wanted to hangout and show us around town a little more. The morning started with a stop for breakfast. I had my first item of food that I could not take more than one bite (or in this case, sip) of. It’s a “green bean soup” that they serve cold and drink from a cup with a giant straw. At first glance it looked like a glass of pickle juice. The first, and only sip, I took tasted a little sweet, a little salty and had a big chunk of green bean/pea. It was a little like drinking a can of green beans. It’s one of the only things I’ve actually gagged on. And the evening before I tried cow stomach (didn’t like the texture at all but the flavor wasn’t horrible). I felt bad because Bohan’s friend had purchased one for all of us but there was no way I could drink it. Mandy told me later “Green bean soup is the perfect drink for summer,” and I had to politely agree to disagree on that one.

Now for my most favorite part of the whole week. Saturday evening we met up with Mandy (to buy our train tickets to Beijing!!) and then we made a trip to the market. The plan was for me to make an American dish and for Mandy to teach me how to make her favorite Chinese Dumpling filling. I can not tell you how amazing it was to be back in the kitchen. Never felt so good to hold a big knife! For my part I had to come up with a dish that could be prepared with out an oven and with ingredients that would be easy to find. I went with Mashed Potatoes and Beef with Mushrooms. I think (and hope) Mandy liked it. I know Jesse enjoyed the familiar taste.

Of course the best part was learning about Chinese dumplings. We wanted make our dumpling dough but we didn’t have enough time, so we bought (well, truthfully we forgot and had to send Jesse and Michelle back out to buy) some and made our own filling. When I get back home I plan to teach myself how to make the dough but for now just learning to shape and cook the dumplings is enough. We made filling for beef dumplings with mushrooms and pork dumplings with cabbage and mushrooms. This week I am going to post the recipe for the pork dumplings but for now here is a sneak peak of the fun.


Thank you for reading!!!!!

China – Week Two Part Two

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I am so glad I decided to split this week into 2 posts. If I had waited and put it all in one it would have been a novel! This is still going to be long though, so maybe you should grab a cup of tea and a blanket and settle in to read. There is a lot to write about this week, it just feels like so much happened. Jesse still had to work during the day, but he had Saturday off so we ended up doing lots of sightseeing. I’ll pick up right where I left off, Wednesday evening.

After spending much of the day blogging, relaxing and surfing the web I finally decided I needed to do something! So around 1:30 I went downstairs and went swimming in the pool for the first time. I had been kind of hesitant because you have to wear a swim cap in the indoor pool, and I look a little silly in it. I swam for about 45 minutes, and in the end it was silly that I was ever hesitant. Everyone was wearing a swim cap and everyone looked silly! The pool was cool but not too cold and I was able to swim some laps and do my own mini-water-aerobics workout. Good times.

That evening we did go out to dinner with Mandy and Michelle. I am so thankful that we have them here. They’re lots of fun and it’s so so so nice having someone that speaks the language. We can go anywhere we want and try new restaurants without worrying about the language barrier. We went to a Japanese restaurant that they called a buffet. But it wasn’t the kind of buffet that I picture when you say buffet. You sit at a table and order from a menu. It is all you can eat, but it’s served just the way a regular restaurant is served. I am sure that cuts down a LOT on waste and you don’t have to worry about icky people handling all of the food. (Funny side note, did your mom ever tell you to eat all of your dinner because there are starving children in China? Well this restaurant actually had a note at the table reminding people to not waste food — because there are starving children in China) We ordered sushi, sashimi, other cooked seafood, beef tongue (Jesse liked, I did not) and more vegetables. My favorite was the garlic. I saw “Fried Garlic” on the menu and I was totally intrigued. The waitress looked a little shocked when we ordered, so I expected it to be really strong. But it tasted just like roasted garlic, which is always good in my book.


Thursday was another day of keeping myself busy at the hotel. I’m getting pretty good at making myself look busy during the day. I have a schedule where I eat breakfast, then I grab the computer from the room and head to the lounge where I “work” for an hour or two. After “work” I head down to the fitness center and work out. Then a little relaxing before getting ready for Jesse to get back to the hotel. Not the most productive time of my life, but it’s something.

For dinner we went to InCity Mall for noodles at a semi-fast food restaurant. It was the first time Jesse had gone there by himself (read – no translator) so it was interesting. He had Mandy write out his usual order and we attempted to just order two of those. We ended up with one of his usual order and another mystery dish. I preferred his usual order, noodles in a spicy broth with beef. The other order came with a plate of….stuff. And the broth was sort of plain. My kind husband let me eat the usual order and he had the mystery bowl.

I need to take a little side step for a moment. While attempting to eat my bowl of noodles (in broth) with a tiny spoon and a set of chopsticks I had an audience. You see, when I go out in China, I’m kind of a one woman parade. I think I’ve seen 3 other blondes in the 2 weeks I have been here. So people often stare, take pictures and point and tell their children to look. It doesn’t really bother me most of the time, I am an oddity here, but when I’m attempting to eat I’d like to be able to step down off of my elephant and just eat without the audience.

Back to the regularly scheduled programing, on Friday it was hot, humid, rainy, and gloomy outside. I had no interest in going out to explore. It even took a lot of self prompting and motivation to go downstairs to work out. But by the time Jesse got back to the hotel I was ready to get out of the room. We went downstairs to the Submarine, a bar, and met a few of his American coworkers. After a few drinks I told Jesse I NEEDED dinner. He rounded up the guys and we headed to the Japanese restaurant in the hotel. Dinner was OK. My stomach was a little upset so I didn’t really want to eat any of the sashimi. I did enjoy my rice. Right down to the very last little grain!

Saturday was a BIG sight-seeing day. Mandy and Michelle met us at the hotel at 10:30 and we got going right away. Our mission for the day was Tiger Hill, which is a 3 acre area where you work your way up a hill passing one amazing piece of history after another. But first we had to buy hats, and man did we look good in our hats 🙂 I took so many pictures that my camera battery died right when we reached the top. Thank goodness for iPhones! After exploring all of the sites (look at more pictures here) we did a little shopping. It seems like there are always “convienently” located shops just as you exit the big tourist sites…. Hmmm. After shopping we were all starving so we stopped for lunch. We had the best cold pasta salad, it had rice noodles, cucumber, garlic, soy sauce, vinegar and edamame. I am definitely going to try to recreate that when I get home. We also ordered cheesy shrimp. So not traditional Chinese food but so very very good. I miss cheese.



Touring, shopping, eating and hunting for a taxi in 90+ degrees with high humidity, it’s not surprising we were beat. It seemed fitting to go back to the hotel for a little swim. And the pool felt so nice. Later for dinner we went to restaurant that serves “porridge”. To me it tasted more like chicken and rice soup. I am also officially over chicken bones. It tasted great, but I just do not like having to fish a bone out of my mouth every other bite. So thankful for boneless skinless chicken breast back in the states. Before the porridge we had some sort of mushroom dish made with little bites of pork and lots of celery. That was amazing and possibly my favorite dish yet!

You still with me? I promise I’m almost finished, finally on Sunday!

Sunday morning we slept in. When we finally forced ourselves out of bed at 11:15 it was too late for breakfast at the hotel. Jesse wanted some familiar fare so we headed to a mall where we thought they had a Burger King. The mall was INSANE. So many people. Lines everywhere. No Burger King to be found. A line out the door at Pizza Hut and KFC. Then we spotted a Dunkin Donuts. Could it be true? It was and it was delicious, even if it wasn’t an exact match for American Dunkin Donuts. Then we decided to head to another mall because at this point Jesse had told himself that he was going to get a burger and he couldn’t go back to the hotel without one! Finding a taxi was impossible. Like I said, it was insane there. We finally settled on a two person motorized scooter taxi thing. We paid way too much for that ride, but to not be standing in the heat trying to get a taxi for one more minute, it was worth it.

Later, two of Jesse’s Chinese coworkers, Ben and Bohan, wanted to take us out. We had dinner at a Chinese restaurant on GuanXian street. After dinner they took us to another area for shopping. I believe the area we went to is known as Old Town. It was really really neat. Shop after shop of silks, knick knacks, beads, and other traditional Chinese symbols for good luck. I did a just a little bit (yeah right!) of shopping. But I can’t share what I bought because I did a little gift shopping! 😉


So that’s that. Week two in a very large nutshell. You can view more of my pictures here. In the world of recipes, next up I plan to post a really delicious broccoli slaw quiche so stay tuned. Thank you for reading!